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Marcia Mantell

Retirement Planning > Social Security

3 Big Shifts That Transformed Social Security Benefits for Women

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What You Need to Know

  • Women were practically excluded from the original Social Security law enacted in 1935.
  • In 1939, Congress amended the new law and added benefits for wives, widows and young widows with children.
  • The next few decades saw more changes, but there was still a lot of lost ground to make up.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it’s worth reviewing the important legal changes to Social Security that provided opportunities for women to earn benefits and make up for lost time.

As a baseline, remember that women were all but excluded from the original Social Security law that was enacted in 1935. Eighty-eight years later, we’ve come a long way!

The Social Security law was written to provide selected workers a small income in retirement. In reality, it was a safety net mostly for men. Specifically excluded were workers in domestic service, on farms and as state employees — predominantly jobs held by women. The few that were allowed to work at all, that is.

In the 1930s, women married, raised families and tended the home. Their husband was the wage earner, so Social Security was designed to replace a portion of his income.

1. Amendments of 1939

But what if the working husband died early or left an older woman a widow? Was there to be no retirement security for a wife?

For the original Social Security law to garner the necessary votes in Congress, the bill focused solely on the worker. Soon thereafter, Congress acknowledged they could not turn a blind eye to women and children.

In 1939, before the first benefit checks were even issued, Congress amended the new law and added benefits for wives, widows and young widows with children.

2. Critical Laws of the 1990s

The 1990s ushered in three critical laws greatly expanding women’s opportunities to keep working and keep benefits:

  • In 1990, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act required employers to provide the same benefits for workers over age 65 as younger employees.
  • In the Unemployment Compensation Amendments of 1992, the rollover rules we know today were implemented. These new rules allowed women who often job-hop to keep their tax-qualified assets protected until retirement.
  • 1993 ushered in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This became one of the most important job protections for women after giving birth or providing care for a family member. Now, she could come back to her job and not lose her pay rate.

3. Lifting of the Earnings Limit

Over the decades, as jobs slowly opened up for women, they too could earn Social Security benefits. For women who spent 20 years or more at home, there was a lot of lost ground to make up to secure their own retirement benefits. And many wanted — and needed — to work after age 65.

But wages were deducted from Social Security payments, leaving working women with less. It wasn’t until 2000, that the earnings test was eliminated once a worker reached full retirement age (FRA). The change came in the Senior Citizens’ Freedom to Work Act — only 23 years ago.

Once the earnings limit was lifted, women trying to make up for lost years of wages and years of low wages could finally increase their Social Security benefits. They could now work longer and collect full benefits after FRA without a clawback.

Connecting the Legal Dots

Before these regulatory changes, women were continually pushed back in their ability to earn a solid living. Women tend to accumulate long stretches of time out of work. Time out means reduced long-term earnings potential and fewer years of wages for sufficient Social Security retirement benefits.

This is all very recent history. The 1990s were incredibly important in helping women maintain wage power. Higher wages and more years working directly feeds their highest 35 years of earnings for Social Security benefits. Zero-dollar years can significantly lower benefits.

You can see how these legal dots build on one another to make improvements. Women in their 60s and 70s had many obstacles to overcome to earn adequate Social Security benefits.

Now we need to help these same women make the most of their claiming decisions and celebrate how far they’ve come. There’s no better time than today to do just that.

(Pictured: Marcia Mantell)

Marcia Mantell is the founder and president of Mantell Retirement Consulting Inc., a retirement business and education company supporting the financial services industry, advisors and their clients. She is author of “What’s the Deal with Retirement Planning for Women?,” “What’s the Deal with Social Security for Women?,” “Cookin’ Up Your Retirement Plan,” and blogs at


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